Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2013

So, another year, another fringe season, and another split visit for me at Edinburgh. If this year’s Buxton Fringe was a first for me as a fringe I was taking part in, this fringe was the first one in ages where I’m not stressing over an imminent play that I’m in charge of. But never mind that, what about the fringe itself?

Well, my first observation is – having the chance to make a like-for-like comparison of the first weekend this year and last year – the 2013 fringe looks a lot busier than 2012. And sure enough, the official figures say ticket sales are indeed up to record levels. Which is bit odd in one respect, because the debate over the cost over putting on a show keeps rumbling on, but that’s a debate for another day. There’s also been a few interesting developments in some of the outlying venues, which I will come on to later.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was that I actually got invited to some plays as a reviewer. I’ll have a think about how to handle this in future years, but for the time being, I’m treating these shows the same as the ones where I was just a regular paying audience member. On the whole, I was quite pleased with the shows where I already had high expectations, but I was a little disappointed in my search for a gem I’d never heard of. But you win some and lose some, and here’s what I picked out:

Pick of the Fringe

Okay, this is going to be a long article, so in the interests of brevity I won’t repeat my praise for shows I’ve already discovered. So apologies to the lovely Trials and Tribulations of Mr. Pickwick, and the harrowing but moving Jordan. which I saw Brighton and Buxton respectively. These are largely the same plays I saw earlier this year, and my high praise still stands.

However, I do want to give an extra mention to Big Daddy v Giant Haystacks.For those of you who didn’t read my preview, this is a play I saw in Buxton in 2011 back in the golden days when the Alf Garnett was a considered a role model, Jimmy Savile was considered a wholesome family DJ, and two overweight middle-aged men pretending to fight each other was considered a sport. This play from The Foundry Group features two actors playing not only the two iconic figures of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but also all the numerous characters who made up the story, including agents, celebrities, and Greg Dyke who pulled the plug on it. One problem with the 2011 version was that there were so many characters involved, you lost track of who was playing who. However, this is has been thoroughly fixes, the unnecessary complication have been removed, and this is now a excellent piece that I’d recommend to anyone. Well, maybe not anyone who takes WWE seriously, but everyone else. Where else can unconvincing staged fighting be so much fun?

Now I’ll take a break from plays I’ve seen before and bring up a couple of new things I was pleasantly surprised by. And one of them was From Where I’m Standing from Delerium Theatre. This is an ambitious piece that strings together a story over four decades, from the schooldays of a cynical teenager on the eve of Tony Blair’s election, to his alleged involvement in a bombing in 2013, to a fight over a social media-obsessed world in the future. Spanning on play over that length of time is difficult; the writing had a good attempt at handling this, but there were some things that could have been done better.

However, the really impressive bit of this play the staging. The one thing that has changed in theatre faster than anything else is the use of technology. Digital sound and projections are relatively recent additions to theatre, but we’ve had years to observe what works and what doesn’t on stage. But the newcomer is tablets (what non-techies call the iPad on the incorrect belief that only Apple makes tablets). There is very little opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes here, but Delerium theatre worked this into the show flawless, along with sound, projections, and a very creative and versatile set. This is worth a visit simply to see what you can do in a Fringe space if you use your imagination.

And my other discovery (okay, Richard Stamp from Fringeguru recommended this so not entirely a discovery, but anyway …) is Fade from Dugout Theatre. This was unexpectedly impressive because it’s a student production, and as such an good example of why you shouldn’t always dismiss student theatre out of hand. (I saw them do Dealer’s Choice a few years back, so these people know what they’re doing.) The story itself is quite simple – a gloomy journalist setting up a meeting with his teenage crush-turned famous actress, who’s apparently hooked up with a film director who’s a complete penis – but the strength of this play is the way the play expertly blends in music, flashbacks, and stage choreography.

There is only one snag with this play. They employ so many theatrical devices on stage, I think they get carried away with it. I loved the bit where the lead character discusses with his inner voice how he’d have handled Hamlet (“Sorry Ophelia, I think I was a bit out of order there,” “Oh cheers Hamlet, I won’t drown myself after all), but at the same time I was wondering when they were going to get back to the story they’re supposed to be telling. But there’s no doubt this blows most student theatre out of the water. Other student groups, please take note.

Finally, going back to my recommendations, there’s always Bite-Size, which I’ve recommended in fringe after fringe, but this time, I think it may be their best Edinburgh Fringe line-up ever. It’s helped in part by their unusually good crop of new plays shown at the Brighton Fringe. Elephants and Coffee remains my firm favourite of the new ten-minute plays. It’s just a pity that next year they’ll have to work even harder to live up to their ever-rising expectations.

And now the new one: Killing Roger (a surprise hit with divorced women who said “Ooh, my ex-husband’s called Roger, I’m definitely seeing this”) from Sparkle and Dark. As blog regulars will know, I’ve been following Sparkle and Dark on and off since 2010, and so far they’ve done some excellent plays by Louisa Ashton. Part acting, part puppetry, they have followed the theme of dark fairy tales, increasingly appealing to adults more than children, with their last one The Girl With No Heart having strong parallels to nuclear war. This play, however, was written jointly by musical director Lawrence Illsey and director Shelley Knowles-Dixon. No parallels in this play – this time it’s the very real, and very horrible, situation where Billy, a sixth-former caring for a cantankerous old man in a lot of pain, is asked to assist his suicide.

After so long relying on one writer, the question regulars will inevitably ask is: who is the better writer? In the case of Sparkle and Dark, it’s not that important a question. There is a lot more to Sparkle and Dark plays than the script; it is a very tightly integrated operation with writing, directing, choreography, puppetry and music all feeding off each other. Louisa is not far away, providing Roger’s right arm and a whole load of excellently acted supporting characters. The production style defines Sparkle and Dark for more than who wrote the script.

But still, the question remains. If I had a to make a choice, I’d probably go for Louisa at a push, but that’s not really the point. Apart from the sensible decision to not make yourself dependent on one writer, the real point of this is to be different. Louisa’s strength is her wild imagination – this play is far more down to earth. And it’s a moral debate with no easy answer. Few would argue that nuclear war is a good thing, but here there’s all sorts of questions. Was Billy right to do as Roger asked? Should Billy be tried as a criminal for what he did? And – a question easily over looked – was it right of Roger to ask that of a teenager with his whole life ahead of him. If the Wellcome Foundation’s intention to sponsor this was to provoke a debate, it’s certain a good way to do it. And you can join the debate here.

UPDATE 01/09/13: I clean forgot one: Not the Messiah. I am mortally embarrassed. I had good expectations of this having seen Tom Crawshaw’s writing and George Telfer’s acting in action before, and they do not disappoint. This is a one-man show telling the story of Graham Chapman from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the story behind it – how he became an accidental hero by being one of the first out and unashamed gay men, how he nearly threw away what he had with silly affairs, how he battled and overcame his drink problem, and the heavy price he paid for ignoring his smoking problem. The difference from all the other one-man biographical shows – how many of the others keep being interrupted by the stock Month Python policeman drawing sketches to an abrupt close? And the Python interjections are funny – until the policeman abruptly calls time of Chapman’s life. Tom Crawshaw may be best known for interactive farces, but he also has a few equally good serious plays under his belt too, and this is no exception.

Special pick of the fringe:

I have one final pick of the fringe which deserves a special mention for a unique reason. This pick is The Devil and Billy Markham, performed by the extremely obscure Theatre Someone. It was one of the times when I had a slot to spare and I was seeing what was available at the half-price ticket hut, and pretty much everything after that pushed my expectations down. The venue was little more than a function room in a social club. There are plenty of functions rooms in Edinburgh converted into makeshift theatres with a temporary lighting run and black curtains, but this was just a function room. And whilst almost every Fringe play, from Brighton to Edinburgh, from the smallest productions to the biggest, from the outstanding to the awful, have posters and flyers that look professionally designed and printed. The publicity for this play frankly looked like a five-minute job on Microsoft Word.

And what do you know? It was surprisingly good. The play is an hour-long poem from Shel Silverstein about the bets the devil plays on life loser Billy Markham, how they outwit each other again and again. Played with a cast of two men and one blues guitarist, it’s part play, part music and part poetry. Even though we were sitting in a posh room with posh furniture – the last place you’d want to evoke the atmosphere of either Hell or trailer-trash America – within five minutes of the play starting, you forget about all of this. Sadly, the play was only on for two nights; had it been on for longer, I would have been pushing everyone to see this.

Why am I making a fuss about this one? It’s because this turns Fringe logic on its head. The conventional wisdom is that at the Edinburgh Fringe, you need a three-week run, top-notch publicity, and a proper space to perform in (not an actual theatre – a makeshift one will do, but it will still cost an arm and a leg). Small casts and minimal set is allowed, but you’re still looking at thousands. Not here. This was done on a tiny scale and it was one of the best things I’d seen. Okay, reviewers tend not to take plays seriously that aren’t done on a “proper” budget, but if this play is anything to go by, maybe they should.

Honourable mention:

The last thing on my list of things to see was Captain Amazing by Alastair MacDowall. North-east theatre buffs will of course know that he’s just had a successful run of Brilliant Adventures, and this play is to some extent a companion piece. Like its longer cousin, this is a play that mixes fanciful adventures with drab reality. In this case, it’s a man who spends part of his time as a superhero. Dastardly villains, as we all know, reside in their fortress of doom, but fewer people know that, whilst Superman in a nice guy, Batman is a bit of a self-obsessed cock? The other half of the time, he’s father to a little girl who just asks too many questions, such as why mummy an daddy don’t live together any more, and why she can’t go back to school like everyone else, and why she keeps going to hospital. A small consolation is that, this time, no-one gets their teeth pulled out my a megalomaniac drug lord.

I enjoyed this play, but one criticism I have of both plays is that I felt they are more complicated than they need to be. This one, I felt, went a little too far and makes the audience work too hard. I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to be seeing a play where superheroes have the same family complications as the rest of us, or whether the whole superhero thing was made up and it was just a story told to his daughter. Most reviewer, I concede, didn’t have a problem with this, but I’d be careful about this. It would be a pity for such a promising newcomer to get carried away and write endless plays no-one understands.

Now for some non-theatre recommendations. This is a theatre blog, and I don’t see enough comedy to make a meaningful judgement (and this includes things down in the programme as theatre but are really comedy). There’s Desperately Seeking the Exit, a talk from Peter Michael Marino who wrote Desperately Seeking Susan – sadly not the famous movie form the 80s but the disastrous musical based on the film that featured the songs of Blondie. This is the writer giving his side of the story, so you should naturally treat the account with some caution, but it’s certainly believable, and enough to put any aspiring writer off letting the West End get their hands on anything. And it’s funny. And I was also particularly impressed with Boris and Sergey II, another puppet show in extremely poor taste, this time chronicling their escape from Hell. It still scoops the “What the fuck?” (in a good way) award, but the thing that really impressed me about this was that Flabbergast Theatre have really pushed the boat out this time, with an amazingly complicated routine of four puppeteers and numerous puppets choreographed to perfection. (And Louisa Ashton apparently did most of the choreography for that too. Clearly one show isn’t enough now.) Finally, Morgan and West is well worth a watch. This is officially a magic act, but like most good magic acts, the best shows are all entertainment and only a little magic. In this case, it’s all worked around story of two intrepid time-travelling Victorian magicians pursuing a stolen book of magical secrets that actually wasn’t stolen but instead was taken by themselves through a time travelling parodox after getting shut in a box and – oh, sod it, too complicated to explain. There’s a tour coming up. See it for yourself.

But the highlight from the comedy has to be Knightmare Live. If you don’t know what this programme is, skip to the end of the paragraph because this won’t make sense. If you do, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the entire audience aged between 25 and 40, and very excited. But none was excited more than the dungeoneer, who looked as if his life ambition had been fulfilled, whilst two comedians played the role of advisors. It’s part a parody of the original classic children’s TV series, part improvised comedy (which is apparently touch and go depending on who you’ve got as advisors and dungeoneer, but the ones I got were the great fun) and part cliffhanger when we discover Lord Fear is in fact Kevin, the little boy who wanted to go on Knightmare so much but he couldn’t find three friends and Mum was too busy with Uncle Pete, so he made his own Helmet of Justice and got stranded in the dungeon. If you haven’t seen Knightmare, you must watch all eight series on Challenge TV so that you can enjoy this show.

Finally, I’ve got a couple of mentions for plays that aren’t there yet, but show a lot of potential. One thing I think looks promising is 3BUGS Theatre’s take on Wuthering Heights. This used an existing stage adaptation of Emily Brontë’s book, but was tranplanted to a housing estate in the 1980s. And there’s the twist: they stuck to the original language. That might seem like an odd move, but it’s not that odd when you think about it. It’s now an accepted convention to transplant Shakespeare’s plays in all sorts of settings but never change a word – so Elizabethan dialogue appears in the brothels of Paris, the trenches of world war one, an African banana republic, you name it. Doing the same for other authors is a logical extension. I did, however, find myself thinking how the play could have been done rather than what I was actually seeing. For all the bold efforts, this play was never really going to work as an hour-long fringe performance – the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy are just too complicated to portray in 60 minutes. The company acknowledges this and say that this should be considered a taste of the story rather than the whole thing. But definitely stick at these adaptations; gambles like this can pay off handsomely.

The other one is Brush from Synesthetic Theatre. Now, in theory, this is a play where I could list a lot of thing that they did wrong. The play starts with an interaction with the audience as if they’re invited into Matt and Swanny’s studio, but then time jumps forward weeks or months which is confusing. The multimedia part is a bit out on a limb, half the audience have to crick their necks to see what’s going on, and connecting the theatre projector to a laptop on stage with a battery warning going off constantly isn’t good technical planning. And really annoyingly, the play advertised as an hour long is over in 40 minutes, just as the story was getting interesting. Well, surprisingly, in spite of all these faults I actually quite enjoyed it. Whether by accident or by design, the relationship between Matt and Swanny has the makings a really good play. One artist is on the way up and prepared to pander to commercialism – the other doggedly sticks to his principles and is secretly jealous of his studio-mate’s success. One had a girlfriend he drove away with his own arrogance and mysongeny; the other had an affair with her – not because he wanted her, but because he wanted to get closer to him. A lot of work to be done here – but get it right and they could be on to a winner one day.

Special honourable mention:

I have one other thing to report, but it’s not a play, or a comedy – it’s a venue. One thing I noticed about this year’s fringe is a move for the outlying venues to make themselves known through individuality. Greenside has been establishing itself as an affordable venue for performers not too far out the centre, and the Hill Street Theatre did a programme entirely of solo performances. But the most interesting contribution has been from Summerhall, a very recent addition to the Edinburgh Fringe scene.

Summerhall, as the former site of the school of veterinary studies, had a programme which covers a lot of science and medicine, but also covers a lot of fine art. There are also some random arts exhibits around the site, including seven huts in seven colours each plays music in a different key. The net result is an experience you won’t see anywhere else at the Fringe. I do, however, feel they have to think carefully about what they want this venue to be.

It’s a vetted and highly experimental programme, and some of it inevitably won’t be understood by the majority of the public. If you look at it one way, that’s not a show-stopper. Provided you can come across as looking clever and arty, and you get some friendly journalists on side who are impressed with how clever and arty you are, you can secure your place as a name in the arts world, regardless of what the majority of the public actually think. The Tate Modern and Baltic have been doing this for years so Summerhall could do the same – but I would be extremely disappointed if they did. No matter how bold they want to be, it hasd to be a journey that their audience once to join them on. Once people stop coming to see you to enjoy themselves – and the only audience left are people who come along because they’re doing it to be cultured – what’s the point in doing it at all?

This is perhaps the most interesting development of the fringe as a whole. The big venues might have their own trademarks such as Underbelly’s cow and the cartoon yellow and black writing of Pleasance, but there’s little to tell the actual shows apart. These outlying venues have the potential to make the fringe even more diverse than it already is. But I hope that venues like Sumerhall do not lose sight of the most important principle of the fringe: the audience is the final judge. Not arts councils, not vetting committees, but audiences and their cold hard ticket sales. If we can have a variety of venues that people go to because they want to, and not because clever people said they ought to, the Fringe will be richer still.

And so, that is the end of my Fringe coverage for 2013. You haven’t quite seen the last of this, because I still have some post mortem of the fringe season to do. Other than than, come back in April when my coverage of the 2014 Fringe season begins.